Retrospective

From the Archives: Malcolm Morley Paints a Picture, in 1968

Malcolm Morley, The Ruskin Family, 1967.

COURTESY THE ESTATE OF MALCOLM MORLEY AND SPERONE WESTWATER, NEW YORK

With a show of Malcolm Morley’s last works on view at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York, we turn back to the Summer 1968 issue of ARTnews, in which Lawrence Alloway followed the artist as he created his 1967 painting The Ruskin Family. The work is a prime example of Morley’s photorealistic works, which often rendered photographs by way of painterly techniques with painstaking detail. Of his unusual approach to his subject matter, Morley, who died earlier this year at age 86, tells Alloway, “The problem is density of paint surfaces.” Alloway’s essay, part of this magazine’s ongoing “Paints a Picture” series, follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Morley Paints a Picture”
By Lawrence Alloway
Summer 1968

Malcolm Morley’s portrait of the Mickey Ruskin family began at a Sunday brunch, late last summer. The artist and a photographer, Isi Veirus, were present and at the end of the meal they left the table and started photographing. Under Morley’s direction the photographer took about 50 photos with a strobe light of the Ruskins sitting around the now ravaged table. Later Ruskin and Morley went over the pictures together to select one for the painting. Ruskin favored one, Morley another which had, he said, a more “equal distribution of the elements.” “Go ahead. Do what you want,” said Ruskin, and he never saw the painting until it was finished. [Alloway’s piece erroneously referred the Ruskin family as the “Rustins” throughout. Each mention has been corrected for this post. —Ed.]

Morley’s paintings are derived from photographs. The earliest ones are dark and grainy, with nostalgic hints of archaic Navy uniforms and old destroyers. Then he moved into bright and shining views of tourist ships, at sea or entering harbor; he followed these with a series of paintings of cabin interiors, derived from the bland, heavily re-touched color photographs of cruise-literature. Finally he made two large and intricate figure compositions of deck-sports and First Class dining. By 1967 he had run to an end of the marine imagery (as it might be called, despite Morley’s statement, “I have no interest in subject matter as such or satire or social comment or anything else lumped together with a subject matter”). He tried, but without much satisfaction, a rodeo subject, a couple of horses in a landscape, and planned other works which he did not get done. His problems extended from his doubts about the choice of the original source photographs to skepticism about the handling of paint in the completed paintings. At this time he collected some large color reproductions of sports events from a Goodyear calendar, but for him Goodyear meant ironically “bad year.”

It was Andy Warhol who turned Morley onto portraiture. Warhol passed to him a commission for a portrait for Sargent Shriver’s daughter. The commission fell through, but the idea stayed with Morley. His pessimistic feeling that his Marine Period had been merely luck, without a real potential for future development, was relieved by the idea of a set subject. Though the proposal for the Ruskin portrait originated with Morley, the obligation to his sitters, once the agreement existed, acted like a commissioned subject (or like a deadline to a writer). Art that is commissioned is, by definition, occasional and contractual and here the transaction coincided with the need of the artist at a moment of crisis. This double function is one reason for the painting’s exceptional position in Morley’s work.

The completed painting shows the Ruskin family spaced around a circular table like spectators at an arena. On one side Sharon Ruskin cradles a Persian cat, on the other Mickey holds a child on each knee, one of whom is still eating while the elder watches the camera. The center of the painting, above the table, contains a potted plant and part of a Neil Williams painting zigzagging into the room. It is the darkest-keyed of Morley’s recent paintings, an extension of his technique into the muted tonality of traditional portraiture. The white border around the whole image, an integral part of Morley’s intention, helps to keep the recessive image on the surface. It also, of course, emphasizes the artificiality of the painting in opposition to the illusionism of the depicted scene.

Any single painting, isolated from the rest of an artist’s production, will turn out to be in some respects typical and in some respects a special case. The special elements here are that the contract represented a solution to an impasse in which the artist found himself and, also, the fact that the painting was done in oil, unlike his preceding works, all in acrylic paint. Typical and recurrent elements of Morley’s art are his games of skill and the ambiguity of reference in the image. A painting that is derived as closely from a photograph as this is has references to both the subject (in this case, the sitters) and to another channel of information (the undisguised photographic origin). It is also, of course, a painting with its own physical characteristics and limits, an item fully within the artist’s control. We are involved, therefore, with a problem of translation (from one channel to another) as well as the appreciation of autonomous art. As well as generalizing about the work as a characteristic of Morley, I propose charting it with some particularity.

Morley translates from one channel to another: that is to say he moves information from one medium to another without destroying its constant factors. He paints a photograph of a family and the painting is legible as both photographic derivative and as a family group. There is an interplay of “photographic realism,” taken literally, and a subtle level of formal organization obtainable specifically in the medium of painting. He works by a demanding process which, as it were, consumes itself. The surface of the painting is delicately personal, but not receptive to autographic marks or the record of revisions. As he says, he “conceals the process” as he goes, which has the effect of solidifying the work of art as an object and of emphasizing the image. (Morley’s disavowal of interest in the subject matter or image or iconography of his works is, I think, prompted more by a desire to keep loose than by an effort to tell it like it is.) His art actually needs the outside reference as much as it needs the internal structure.

When he begins work on a painting, his first step is to square up both the photograph and the central area of the canvas, leaving the white edges free to act as an outer boundary in the completed painting. For the present they are protected by tape. Then he transfers the information in each compartment of the grid, enlarging as he goes, into the forms of paint. His aim is to resolve each square before proceeding to the next, with an absolute minimum of final smoothing. His concentrated surface-description means that he is not working with an illusionistic space on the canvas. Whereas realists work in the medium, as it were, of habitable space, in which forms can be perceived and related, recessive space in Morley is a spin-out from his fidelity to another medium, photography. Similarly, he does not draw the figure, as many artists do, intentionally or by custom, by an emphatic identification with head, spine, posture. Note the single hand, without an elbow, shoulder, or torso of the painting. Morley cuts the photographs into strips which he tapes to the canvas, right beside the area he is painting to facilitate meaning. This has the effect of blocking spatial entanglements as he works, because even deep space has to be painted as something on top or in front of the canvas. He aims for iconic relation between the painting and its source, iconicity in a sign-system referring to a one-for-one correspondence of sign and referent.

As the painting develops, the process is more like the erection of a prefabricated house than the traditional cladding of a skeleton. Pre-packaged electrical systems, one-piece bathrooms and kitchens, are inserted as whole units in prefabricated buildings. Similarly Morley likes to work, not with a rough format that he refines or makes concrete, but with a high degree of specificity and completeness from the beginning. What he uses as his working unit, the modular square, acquires concreteness by its position in the original photograph. Each part of the work is taken, with as little delay as possible, to its end-state. Thus, complete bits combine additively instead of solidifying out of generalized outlines. In practice Morley does work beyond the strict limits of the single square, but this is an understandable impatience and one that, given Morley’s remarkable control, does not lead to approximations. His drawing exists merely to supply points of reference for his real interest, which is painting. His analytical drawing, tending towards small straight lines, tending to break, recalls his training at the Royal College of Art, London. (Morley came to the U.S. in the late 1950s.) Unlike Sir William Coldstream’s brittle line, however, which is a record of hesitations, Morley’s is purely functional and is destined to disappear under the paint. In fact, it is the skin of paint that, more than anything else, absorbs Morley. “The problem is density of paint surfaces,” he says. If “the parts can be reconciled with the surface” the painter is spared the invention of composition; design, as a matter of balance and contrast, can be by-passed. One of Morley’s reasons for using ready-made sources, found photos in most cases, or specially prepared, as in the case of the Ruskin group, is to avoid the definition of art as the optimum distribution of separate bits.

Morley began The Ruskin Family in magnacolor (the right side), but switched to oil paint. The association of oil paint with thick and thin usage, as in Abstract-Expressionism, had to be overcome because he values paint as a neutral, unemphatic means. He does not want “different skins for different parts” (most luxuriantly exploited by Hans Hofmann), but “a single consistency of paint surface which will reconcile everything in a formal way to each other” without the checks and balances of “a conventional design sense.” He has always opted for a “thin, opaque paint,” like plastic paint, but he chose oils for the Ruskin photograph for two reasons. The tonal range of the photograph was darker than usual and oil would suit this; also, he considered a change of technique would ease still further the problem he had partially solved by doing a contractual painting. Al Leslie happened to mention to him a medium that gave oils the properties Morley needed, litharge. Instead of being transparent, like oil, it makes the pigment both thin and opaque, without lessening its manipulative freedom. Morley describes the medium as having something like the effect of “greasing instead of wetting the paint,” and it is relatively quick-drying—two or three days. It is worth recording that this painting, a large work, was executed faster than Morley’s average: perhaps his rediscovery of oil paint contributed to this fluency. Morley works on only one painting at a time and the Ruskin family took him about two months. (The other professional claim on Morley’s time during this period was his teaching schedule at the School of Visual Arts.)

In the same statement in which Morley dismissed his subject matter, he wrote: “I want works to be disguised as something else (photos) mainly for protection against ‘art man-handlers’ . . . I accept the subject matter as a byproduct of surface” (the whole statement is in the United State catalogue of the 9th São Paulo Bienal). If the subject matter is a by-product of surface, it is still subject matter and definitely present in one’s total response to the painting. Without minimizing the subtleties of Morley’s “dense opaque surface that is consistent throughout,” there are subjects in his paintings and they are locked operationally with his skills. In fact the function of high skill in Morley’s art is not to pin down the world with a comprehensive clarity, but to create ambiguity. There is a habit among art critics (though not among art historians) to consider the subject matter in figurative art in simplistic terms, reserving subtlety for the formal and material presence of the work. Figurative art, however, is not a thoughtless act of imitation and could only be thought of as such when the esthetics of abstract art are receiving most of our attention.

A neglected function of figurative art has to do with metamorphosis and substitution. Classical Greek writers on art stressed this aspect and continually treated art as if it were life, or were becoming life. For instance, Callistratus wrote: “A statue of a Bacchante, wrought from Parian marble, has been transformed into real Bacchante” [by the skill of the artist]; and elsewhere he describes a bronze sculpture that “deceived your eyes into thinking that it . . . was capable of advancing forward.” Such comment has usually been regarded as merely superstitious and folkloric, a naïve readiness to co-operate with trompe l’œil deceptions. Obviously, Morley’s art is not to be explained by a Daedelian power of turning on effigies. However the two-channel references of his work do make for a complex rather than a simple situation. The work is clearly a painting, and a subtle one; it resembles, too, and closely, a photograph. There is a parallel with other artists who use quotation or literal transcription, such as Roy Lichtenstein and George Segal. The work is, at one level, factual, a sample of the world; it is, also, a transformation or annexation of the source. These works do not rest on a secure, one-directional reference, but fluctuate between source and transformation, between one sign system and another. In place of wonder we are given uncertainty, but both states of feeling have to do with a mobile rather than a fixed subject matter.

Morley finished the painting by spraying it, to unify any discrepancy between the magnacolor and oil areas and to subdue the variations inevitable in oily blacks. He sprayed two coats of grey-orange and grey-blue oil paint, thinned down with turpentine, and he introduced irregularities in these cloths so that variables animate what might have been too smooth a veil. This was Morley’s first use of the spray gun, but he is making increased use of it now, not as a substitute for varnishing, but structurally. Right after the Ruskin group he painted two of the Goodyear calendar subjects, The Regatta at Henley-on-Thames and The Open Golf Championship (both in the Hirshhorn Collection). These paintings are in Liquitex, a return to the clear paint of the earlier works. And he is working now on another family portrait.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 1968 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “Morley Paints a Picture.”

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